Review: The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (Geopolis Theater)

  
  

Centuries of Japanese theatrical tradition in show bogs down clear storytelling

 

  

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

  
Geopolis Theater Company presents
  
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick
        
by Kobo Abe
Translated by
Donald Keene
Directed by
Eric Turner
at
Japanese Cultural Center, 1016 Belmont (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $10-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Geopolis is a newer company in Chicago that has taken on a noble mission by choosing one culture to focus on each year. For their inaugural season they’ve chosen the theater of post-war Japan. These worldly minded artists have housed themselves in Chicago’s beautiful Japanese Cultural Center. Here they have staged acclaimed Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s compilation of three plays written from 1957 – 1969, collectively titled The Man Who Turned Into a Stick. Eric Turner’s direction utilizes space well, creating several visually stunning pictures. But ultimately, this Stick misses the magic and resonance of Abe’s world.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.Upon entering the space (after leaving your shoes at the door), you can almost justify the admission price alone while admiring Mike Mroch’s cherry blossom influenced design, at first sight calming and alive. Four actors are motionless standing guard entombed in their quarters of the set, whereupon you take in Jerica Hucke’s varied and thought-provoking costumes.

The first play on the bill, and the strongest of the night, is “The Suitcase.” A married woman (Miona Harris) shows an unmarried visitor (Marissa Cowsill) a curious suitcase (played with distinctive physical work by Chris Sanderson). This peculiar suitcase emits sounds such as radio clicks and stock market quotes vocalized by Sanderson. The married woman’s husband has forbidden her from opening the suitcase, yet the visitor manipulates the woman’s curiosity. Abe takes a jab at patriarchal society here alluding to denying women access to worldly knowledge (a man’s affairs). Debate upon whether the suitcase contains dead ancestors or a horde of insects ensues. Cowsill’s playfulness keeps this game fun. However, there is a good amount of time when Sanderson’s disembodied reports and the women’s dialogue overlap at such a volume that it becomes difficult to discern what is happening. Eventually, the women accuse each other of the terrible sin of changing, which surely resonates with an isolationist post-war Japan. Finally, the married woman decides upon ignorance and keeps the contents of the suitcase a mystery.

The next piece is titled “The Cliff of Time.” This play puts Sanderson on display. He is a boxer past his prime who needs to win a pivotal fight to avoid dropping in the rankings, and ultimately into oblivion. Along the way Abe makes an elegant allegory to climbing the ladder in life and in the workplace. Turner makes clever use of the ensemble as puppeteer gods controlling the boxer with streams of red cloth. Josh Hoover proves to be a strong presence in this piece, helping to raise the intensity of the stakes while remaining calm and omnipresent. Nevertheless, Sanderson’ performance as the boxer is far from a knockout. The abrasive interpretation and lack of physical specificity during this piece takes away from the possibility of nuance and pathos in Abe’s text. The demanding monologue overcomes Sanderson, forcing the humor and clarity of the story to suffer.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The conclusion is the title piece, “The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.” Two hippies (Jon Beal and Miona Harris) come across a stick (played by Sanderson). The stick is without meaning to them until two individuals (Hoover and Cowsill) appear with great interest in the stick and offer to purchase it from them. These individuals turn out to be agents from hell given the task of surveying what objects the dead turn into. Apparently, “98 percent become sticks.” Once again, there is some humor and irony that is lost in this piece. While Hucke’s costumes were impressive initially, one desires a transformation in this act to clarify the roles. Harris’ hippie is still dressed in a traditional kimono while attempting to represent the youth counter culture of the 1960’s. One high point is watching Cowsill develop an intriguing fascination with the stick. However, when Sanderson, as a dead man trapped inside the stick, is left alone for eternity we should sense the frustration of his/our mortality. Unfortunately, as too much of the actors’ focus is centered on muddled stylistic movement, empathy is sacrificed.

Overall, Turner’s concept takes too much precedence over telling Abe’s tales with clarity. Action and character are hindered by attempts to incorporate ritualistic movement, in the likes of Suzuki and Noh theatre, to a point that it detracts from the subtlety and poignancy of Abe’s writing. What we get is a somewhat watered down hodgepodge of Japanese theatrical physicality that could take an ensemble years or decades to master.

To communicate the story of a play is the foremost job of any production. As this company continues to tackle other great theatrical cultures it might do well to remember that if it clearly conveys the story, it already has succeeded greatly in its global endeavor.

     
    
Rating: ★★½
  
  
Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company. Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The Man Who Turned Into a Stick continues at The Japanese Cultural Center through April 3rd, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00pm.  Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15 online, $18 at the door, and $10 student tickets. For more info visit: http://www.geopolistheater.com/

     

 

Poster for 'Man Who Turned Into a Stick', designed by Bryan Butler and Roderick Renato.Cast

Jon Beal
Marissa Cowsill
Miona Harris
Josh Hoover
Chris Sanderson

Production

Director: Eric Turner
Stage Manager: Dree Elfring
Set Design: Mike Mroch
Costume Design: Jerica Hucke
Lighting Design: Chris Feurig
Technical Director: Adam Gorsky

Poster by Bryan Butler
Poster Artwork by Roderick Renato

     
     

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